Cocoa trader expands to four travel agencies in south Wales

A cocoa trader who took over an agency in south Wales in 2021 has now expanded her business to four outlets in the region.

Pamela Thornton recently launched her fourth shop in Penarth, following the opening of her third in High Street, Barry, last December.

They follow the first shop in Cowbridge in 2021 and the second in Porthcawl, in July 2022.

The first shop was formerly part of the Tailor Made Travel chain, which was taken over by Hays Travel after the miniple went into administration in September 2020. The store remained open for six months but was closed in March 2021.

Two months later, the agency was reopened under a new name after the building’s owner Thornton, who had no previous experience in travel, approached the agency’s staff and suggested she start her own travel company on the same site.

More: Cowbridge Travel opens second retail store in south Wales

All four shops are members of Hays Travel Independence Group and together have eight full time and nine part time staff.

Cowbridge Travel and Porthcawl Travel were named after their location as Thornton was keen to have “a local identity”.

However, the Barry and Penarth shops are both called Thornton Travel as they are close to each other.

Thornton said: “I had a bee in my bonnet about Penarth. It has a thriving retail and hospitality area with a vibe similar to a London suburb, such as Putney or Clapham.

“The employment and median income levels are good and there are a lot of independent shops and restaurants in the centre which keep the footfall reasonably high.

“There was only one other existing agency which, for a population of almost 30,000, was attractive.

“Cowbridge, for example, has fewer than 5,000 residents but two well established and profitable agencies.

“I felt if I could find a good site and suitable staff, it would work well as a business proposition.

“Also in Penarth, Tui has a well-established agency two doors down while Travel House, a Welsh multiple, is around the corner, having opened about the same time as us.”

She has taken on five people: two full-time and three part-time.

The manager of the Penarth shop is Sarah Dance who has eight years [of experience] in travel. She moved over from the Barry store to be the manager.

Her deputy is Sarah Hale who joined after many years at La Vida. Jo McCabe, who supervised the setting up of Penarth, rotates between the two stores.

“The first three shops had been easy to staff as I had taken on an existing team in shop number one and they had done the recruitment for me thereafter,” said Thornton.

“It was different with Penarth as proximity to Cardiff offers many employment options and, like the rest of the travel industry, we faced recruiting from a limited pool of experienced staff because of Covid.

“Opening involved borrowing staff from the other shops and putting together an in-house training programme.”

Thornton added: “The response from customers and locals is so far so good.

“Travel remains one of the bright spots in consumer spending and the reaction to us, with a virtually unlimited range of holidays to offer a customer, has been very positive.

“We only have a two-month track record but have seen cruises do very well along with winter sun and skiing.”

Thornton said the Barry store is in “a secret street – tucked away from the main commercial centre – but full of independent shops and excellent eating and drinking places along with good parking options”.

She added: “The Barry store is managed by Natalie Jones and has done really well. It has beaten its projected targets more than two months ahead of time.

“Natalie managed Hays Travel in Barry so was well known in the town.

“High Street has a great community spirit with wonderfully friendly people and we get huge support from other businesses.”

She also said the first two branches in Cowbridge and Porthcawl have done “very well”.

“We have no targets, no formatted speeches, no obligation to sell specific holidays that aren’t the best fit for the customer – so the girls can take the time to find out what our customers like and dislike, and what they are looking to spend, then suggest options for them,” commented Thornton.

“We have built a loyal customer base as a result. Despite the four individual shops and demographics, we very much work as a team, collaborating and pooling expertise for the benefit of the customer.

“However, let’s be frank, owning a travel agency is not a big money spinner. To be successful requires not only a good economic backdrop but careful control of costs such as optimising work rotas so that we don’t ‘overstaff’ as well as avoiding discounting.

“Business has been surprisingly steady. People seem determined to chase their dreams and travel even while cutting back on other areas of expenditure such as eating out and buying concert tickets.

“We might be gradually exhausting savings built up during Covid but a determination to live in the moment still seems very prevalent.

“Let us hope that geopolitical events do not take that appetite away.

“Overall, I am cautious about the prospects for the next two years.”

Picture from left at the new branch in Penarth: Bella Fisher, Sarah Dance, Sarah Hale, Millie Slade and Pamela Thornton.

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